Bathiya Sumithraarachchi's noble mission in Samsara:
Caring for the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi
A young scientist stepped into the President’s private residence,
Breamer at Ward Place in the early hours of May 20, 1985. The Head of
State, clad in green pyjamas, welcomed the guest right on time.
"Take a seat, young man", the President said in a stern voice.
He went on questioning the young scientist who looked so confident.
"You are trying to take a great risk. Do you know the danger of what you
are trying to do?", he asked again looking at the young man seriously
over his glasses.
"Yes, Sir. I am well aware of what I am going to do. I only need your
permission to go ahead", the scientist said, explaining the facts in the
two reports he had presented including the findings of the soil experts
and an account of how he was to carry out the daunting task. Assuring
the President of its success, the scientist told him of the urgency.
After carefully listening to his explanation, the President warned
him, “Don't forget that you are taking a great risk. If something
happened to the tree, the Buddhists of this country will be greatly
offended. If you are so confident I will support you, but you have to be
sure of its success”, he said.
At last the late President Junius Richard Jayewardene gave the final
nod to 're-pot' the world's oldest recorded historical tree-the sacred
Sri Maha Bodhi in 1985. The young scientist – the former Director of the
Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya Bathiya Sumithraarachchi recalled how he
took a great risk to make the tree more healthy.
“It took one and a half years to test the soil suitable for the
Bodhin Wahanse (a term of respect). Sri Lanka's best soil expert at the
time, Dr. Chris Panabokke, after testing several soil samples,
recommended soil from Anuradhapura.
The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi is a
sapling from the historic Bo tree under which the Buddha
attained Enlightenment. It was planted in 288 BC and is said
to be the southern branch of the Sri Maha Bodhi at Bodh Gaya
In the thrird century BC,
the Bo sapling was brought to Sri Lanka by Theri Sangamitta,
daughter of Emperor Asoka, and was planted in the
Mahameghavana Park in Anuradhapura by King Devanampiyatissa.
Sumithraarachchi, who had returned from England, after his
post-graduate studies at the University of Reading was asked to take
care of the Sri Maha Bodhi in 1983. He had specialised in caring for old
trees and studied pruning, re-pruning and handling accidental breakdown
of branches at the Kew Gardens. He decided to dig nine feet deep into
the Upper Maluwa (substratum) to check the soil structure of the tree.
He found that the distinctive layers of soil were incorporated in 1937
and felt the need for re-soiling the substratum.
Sumithrarachchi, who regularly treated the tree for various ailments
including insect and fungal attacks, took the bold decision of
fertilising the Bo tree as it was already showing signs of 'stress' and
He first informed the late Chief Incumbent of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi
Ven. Pallegama Gnanaratana Thera. “He called the Atamastana Committee,
the then District Minister K.D.M.C. Bandara and the Government Agent and
asked me to explain the need for re-soiling the substratum. I explained
that the Sri Maha Bodhi, after every defoliation and new flush, had an
increased number of dead branches and that it was time to provide more
nutrients for the tree. They approved the task, but stressed the need to
seek the consent of President Jayewardene”, Sumithraarachchi said.
Protection from elements
The Uda Maluwa, 35 feet by 55 feet, is 35 feet above the ground. The
wall was constructed during the reign of King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha, to
protect it from wild elephants. The late Ven. Pallegama Rewatha Thera
had planted the Pariwara Bo trees (accompanying Bo trees) to camouflage
the Bodhi to protect it from 'ruthless' humans such as Appuhamy and to
safeguard it from natural disasters such as strong winds and rains.
Appuhamy, who had pretended to be a lunatic, tried to cut a branch of
the sacred Bo tree under the influence of certain parties years ago.
There was no fence around the Uda Maluwa then; later the authorities
erected an iron fence, but in 1960 the 'Ranweta' (gold-plated fence) was
erected to protect the tree. “However, I found that the Pariwara Bodhiya
was absorbing all the nutrients. So I put a concrete wall underneath to
prevent its roots from coming near the sacred tree. The Sri Maha Bodhi
needed a proper nutrient supply”, Sumithraarachchi said.
The sacred Bo tree cannot be fertilised with chemicals and methods
used in other plants cannot also be used. “Because the tree is very old
and sensitive, we cannot expose it to everything and anything. The best
treatment should be natural”, he said.
All were ready for the historic event. In this tedious re-soiling
process, first, he collected 40 lorryloads of soil from the recommended
terrains, where Bo trees grew naturally in the Anuradhapura district.
“The soil loads were kept in a Dana Sala for fumigation. As the tree
was old, I did not want to use soil with pathogens from outside as it
might affect the tree. I got the assistance of the Head of the
Fumigation Unit of the Department of Agriculture, Dr. Jinasiri to
fumigate the soil, which was exposed to methyl bromide for three days.
Then the soil samples were tested at the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens.
“The team including soil expert Gangodawila kept in constant touch
with Dr. Panabokke during the re-soiling process. Once the ground work
was completed, Sumithraarachchi's secret plan on re-soiling the Bo tree
was commenced on May 30, 1985. At 6.00 am, the auspicious time set by
the Chief Incumbent Thera, the first soil was taken out.
“I dug the base in sections without using any utensils as they would
damage the roots. The washed soil was drained through a small fixed pump
and re-filled with the treated and tested soil. We worked from dawn to
dusk continuously for five days to re-soil two sections. But the team
had to stop work due to unexpected heavy rain”, he said.
Opening of the second section of soil was carried out after six
months. During the first six months after re-soiling, the strange
behaviour of the Bo tree, which was heavy with fruit, upset
Sumithraarachchi as he knew that trees bear fruit when they are
disturbed. “This is where they go through the shock stage and say 'let
me produce more before something happens to me'.
“However, I was confident that nothing would happen to this sacred
tree as we did not use any artificial material in the re-soiling
process. I had only inserted a few tubes during the re-soiling to treat
the tree in an emergency. However, everything went smoothly as the Bo
tree underwent natural healing.
“In fact, we got lots of seeds to plant more Bo trees”,
Sumithraarachchi said adding that he was a little excited as he
remembered the warning given by President Jayewardene.
After two years of successfully completing the mission, President
Jayewardene, who inaugurated the National Tree Planting Program in
September 19, 1987, complimented him for his success in re-potting the
sacred Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.
“I am happy as I am looking after the world's most sacred tree. This
is my mission in Samsara and the merit should go to my parents who gave
me a good education. Today, the Bo tree is very healthy and is a living
legend,” Sumithraarachchi, who also rehabilitated and looks after the Bo
trees in Bellanwila, Kalutara, Kataragama and many other places said.
Can the sacred Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi predict the future of the country?
“Yes, trees are biological entities and they do feel. They are like
any other living organism and feel affection. They respond to people who
have affection for them. I speak to the tree but not with words, I look
at it and it gives me indications.”
He said the Bo tree gives indications through its defoliation
pattern. Two weeks before the tsunami, the walls around the Pahala
Maluwa collapsed without a reason. Many believe in the miracles of the
Bo tree and there have been proven incidents.
Many sick people on the verge of death have survived after pirith
chanting was carried out near the Bo tree.
According to Sumithraraachchi, the miraculous power of the sacred Sri
Maha Bodhi cannot be imagined or expressed. Before the final defeat of
terrorism, the tree’s output was “brilliant”.
All Sri Lankan Heads of State, from the late Prime Minister Sirimavo
Bandaranaike to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, have sought the blessings
of the Sri Maha Bodhi before commencing any important work. “As Sri
Lankans we should be proud as we own the original Sri Maha Bodhi.
President Rajapaksa is always blessed as he is a firm believer in the Bo
tree”, he said.
The Sri Maha Bodhi which always indicated the good times of the
country, started growing in a healthy and beautiful way since President
Rajapaksa first contested the Presidential election. Sumithraarachchi
met the President in 2004 (when he was the Prime Minister) when the
latter visited the Bo tree to pay homage.
Sumithraarachchi, who visits the Sri Maha Bodhi twice a month, said
since it was re-potted to enrich the soil condition, the tree had not
suffered any fungal or insect attacks and it has adopted well to the
climatic conditions of the Dry Zone.
“I feel very proud and lucky as I have been taking care of the Bodhi
for over 30 years”, Sumithraarachchi, the ‘tree surgeon’ of the Sri Maha
Bodhiya, said. His only wish is to be the ‘tree surgeon’ of the 2,247
year-old sacred Bo-tree in his next birth too.